lørdag den 20. september 2014

Nahuatl Intellectuals - New book by Kelly McDonough


I just stumbled on this book on google books and read through as much as the snippets would let me. Kelly McDonough's "The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico" is a fascinating account of several Nahua intellectuals from the colonial and postcolonial period such as the grammarian Antonio del Rincon (who was the first to mark the Nahuatl glottal stop and long vowels), Faustino Chimalpopoca who recorded Nahuatl oral tradition and supported the liberal French intervention of Maximilian perhaps because he sensed that he might be so able to make a difference for the native people. McDonough juxtaposes her accounts of historical Nahua intellectuals with portraits and short texts by contemporary Nahua intellectuals, particularly those working in the IDIEZ project. This makes for a very nice argument that Nahua intellectual tradition is alive and well, and that important work continues to be produced by Nahuan scholars today. When I get my hands on the actual book I'll write a full review.


Meanwhile, here is McDonough's own presentation of her book.

fredag den 12. september 2014

Nahuatl Oligosynthesis and the etymology of ”pachtli”


One of the amazing features of Nahuatl is the many different ways that words can be modified and derived from each other. This feature has amazed and baffled linguists since the earliest studies of the language. But since there are so many possible ways of deriving words from other words sometimes the question arises which of two word is derived from the other.

In this blog post I examine a question posted to the Nahuatl-l listserv regarding the etymologies of the word pachtli meaning ”moss, hay, mistletoe, rags, patch” and the verbs pachoa ”to move two things close together/to press two surfaces against eachother” (and seemingly metaphorically for a hen to sit on her eggs, and to govern or oppress someone) and the intransitive version pachiwi meaning ”to move close to one another/to collapse into itself/to settle (physically or emotionally)”. The noun and the verbs, seem to be obviously related. One possibility is that the verbs are derived from the noun so that the original literal meaning of the verbs is to ”to do like moss” or something similar to that. The other possibility is that the noun is derived from the verbs so that the original literal meaning of pachtli was ”something that is pressed against a surface”. Both options are possible since in Nahuatl it is possible to derive verbs from nouns by adding the ending -oa or -iwi, but it is also sometimes possible to derive nouns from verbs by removing the verbal ending and adding the absolutive ending -tli.

I believe the neither is the case, and in the following I will argue for a third interpretation – namely that pachtli and pachoa/pachiwi are all derived from a proto-Nahuan locative morpheme /*pa/ meaning something like “on top of”, and a proto-Nahuan verb root /čiwa/čiwi/ meaning basically “to move in X way”. (Note that in this post a phonemic representations are between //, an asterisk * before a word means that it is a proposed reconstruction,   in phonemic writing I use the symbol č for ch and w for hu/uh)

The Idea of Oligosynthesis

First I have to mention the concept of oligosynthesis. This concept was formulated by the American linguist and engineer Benjamin Lee Whorf who was among the first to begin to study Nahuatl as a living language, by interviewing speakers rather than just reading the old grammars. Whorf also had an expansive mind and was inclined to abstract thinking and seeing logical patterns and associatioins where others did not. When studying Nahuatl in the 1930s he found that many words with similar meanings looked similar, and that it seemed to be possible to analyze many longer words into short single syllabic morphemes with very abstract and general meanings. For example the way that the syllable /a:/ can refer to pretty much anything having to do with water or liquid. He argued that probably it was possible to analyze Nahuatl as having only a small number (perhaps in the tens) of basic morphemes from which all other etymological roots could be derived. He proposed defining such languages with small numbers of morphemes and a plethora of dervational processes as ”oligosynthetic” (from the Greek oligo = few, and ”synthesis” ”put together”). As Whorf continued to work on Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics he seems to have abandoned this idea and he never published anything about oligosynthesis. The only reason we know about it is because a manuscript about it exists on microfilm among the Whorf papers at Yale University. Whorf probably abandoned the idea of oligosynthesis as a basic typological category with good cause, it does seem unlikely that any natural language would ever be based on just a couple of hundred morphemes. Nonetheless, I do think the feeling of words being eerily similar and that they might be related by some abstract concept that just seems to escape us is familiar to most people who work with Nahuatl. When for example one notes that ”an arrow” is mitl and ”to pierce something” is mina it feels as if there is some relation, although we do not know of any current morphological processes that could derive mitl from mina or vice versa.

I personally believe that what we look at when we note these similarities is a sign of something that is not too far from what Whorf proposed. I think that it showed that the proto-Nahuan language must have had more derivational processes than it has currently, and that words could be formed by combining short stems. And not only was this possible, it must have been practiced very avidly by the speakers of the language, so that they generated families of words based on the same morphemes – words that stayed in the language after the grammatical processes they used to form them were no longer productive.

The problem with this belief is that it is very difficult to argue for, because it requires a lot of speculation about possible semantic and derivational relations between words, and what looks similar to me may not look that similar to someone else. It is hard to be convincing. So I hope that in the following I will be pardoned for speculating a bit, and that my reader will be prepared to entertain some of my speculations before dismissing them. My chosen example of an ”oligosynthetic” and historical analysis of Nahuatl, will be the etymology of the word pachtli ”moss”.

The Etymology of pachtli ”moss/hay/patch/rags

The argument that I will advance is that pachtli, pachoa and pachihui both come from a single source namely an original verb with the general meaning ”for two surfaces to come in contact one over the other” with an intransitive version meaning ”to put two surfaces in contact one over the other”. These verbs would have been *pachiwi and *pachiwa, respectively. It should be uncontroversial to posit the existence of these two verbs, pachiwi is attested with the range of meanings given in the first paragraph, which can clearly be abstractly reduced to the concept of two surface being in contact one over the other. In Nahuatl we find many pairs of transitive and intransitive verbs where the intransitive ends in /-i/ and the transitive in /-a/, and among these pairs we find a subgroup where the intransitive ends in /iwi/ and the transitive in /-oa/. Linguist Una Canger argued convincingly in 1980 in her book “Five Studies of Nahuatl Verbs in -Oa” that the verbs in /-oa/ come historically from the sequence /-iwa/ where the presence of the /w/ fused with the preceding /i/ causing it to become rounded and the glide to disappear from the phonemic representation of the word (this soundchange has also caused the noun /si:watl/ “woman” to become /so:atl/ in some dialects, and similar changes are common both in Nahuatl in and in the languages of the world in general). This makes a lot of sense and explains whi the -iwi/-oa pair are the only ones where the transitive and intransitive versions differ in more than the final vowel. So far so good, pachoa comes from *pachiwa, but that doesnt mean that *pachiwa didn't come from a construction such as /*pach-iwa/ and was derived from a root “*pač” meaning “moss”.

Here it is good to make a little point about what we know about the history of Nahuatl syllable structure. Nahuatl today allows both open and closed syllables of the shapes /CV/ /VC/ and /CVC/. But historically this was not the case. Most historical linguists would agree that Proto-Nahuatl probably allowed only /CV/ and /V/ syllables (or at least that they strongly favored them), and that most closed syllables can be understood either as the result of sequences of /CVCV/ where the last vowel has been lost through interaction with the stress pattern, or as the result of metatheses where a /CV/ syllable has been inverted to /VC/ in certain phonological environments.

This in turn means that /pač/ was not a possible syllable in proto-Nahuatl, the root would have to be reconstructed as */pačV/ the last vowel probably being an /i/ since often Nahuan /č/ comes from the sequence /tsi/. Since the original form of the absolutive suffix -tli was /*ta/, the noun pachtli must originally have been /patsita/ or /pačita/. So that means in turn that in order to derive pachoa from pachtli would have to see the original word as composed of two morphemes /patsi-wa/ where /wa/ is a suffix deriving a transitive verb from the noun. This is a possible etymology.

However lets look a little wider for related words. If we start looking at words that are similar to pachoa and pachihui we soon find /patska/ “to squeeze out a liquid” and the pair /patsiwi/ “to become crushed/mashed/bruised” and /patsoa/ ”to crush/mash/bruise something”. To me these words seem to be semantically related to pachihui and pachoa, through the meaning of pressing two surfaces together, and their phonological form is also strikingly similar. But they don't seem very similar to the word “moss”. 

If we look aside from the verbal endings, in -iwi and -oa what makes these words look similar is only the syllable /pa-/ and the fact that there is a phonetic and possibly historical relation between /ts/ and /č/. So what could /pa/ mean?

Whorf actually had the syllable /pa/ in his notes on oligosynthesis and he gave it the following possible meaning: “pervade, go through, across, beyond, and especially over.” We see the syllable /pa/ connection with a meaning of superposition in words such as -pan “on”, pamitl “banner” “-ikpak” “over”, ikpalli “seat”, panoa “cross over” and in the verbs patzihui, patzca, pachoa, pachihui if we accept the conjecture that all of these words are related through the meaning “direct contact between two surfaces one above the other”. If we postulate such an old morpheme /pa/ with the suggested meaning then we could see all these words as related, and the vebs as being formed by the morpheme /pa/ and a verbal root or a verbalizing suffix (here either -tsiwi/-tsiwa or -chiwi/-chiwa).


The verbs patzihui and patzoa would come from:
  • *pa-tsi-wa “to forcefully move a surface on top of another” > /patsoa/
  • *pa-tsi-wi “for two surfaces to forcefully move on top of eachother” > /patsiwi/
Here the verbal ending -tsiwi/tsiwa would give a meaning of “moving something forcefully/loudly” and the proto-morpheme /*pa/ would be a modifier describing the shape into which something is moved. We have other verbs where it is possible to see a similar construction, for example /ilakatsiwi/ “to twist something”/ilakatsoa/ to wrap something/to roll up something“, tlatsoa (from /*tlatsiwa/) “to beat something” (unfortunately “tlatsiwi” has a completely different meaning “to be lazy”), tlatsini “give a loud explosive sound” also suggests the relation between “tsi” and some kind of forceful motion/sound.

Pachihui and pachoa would then come from:
  • /pačoa/ < *pa-či-wa “to move a surface on top of something else”
  • /pačiwi/ *pa-či-wi “for two surfaces to move on top of each other”
Here the verbal ending čiwi/čiwa could give the meaning of “to move/be moved on top of something else” (possibly related čiwi/čiwa could also be related to /či:wa/ “to do X”).

We do have some verbs ending in /-choa/-chiwi/ that suggests a derivation through compounding with a root that indicactes movement. For example /malakačoa/ “to spin something round” and /malakačiwi/ “to spin round” obviously related to the noun root malakatl “spindle”. Here again I would propose that the evidence suggests that malakatl and malakachoa comes from a root /malaka/ meaning “move in a spinning pattern” and that the noun simply takes the absolutive suffix to become malakatl “thing that spins” and the verbs are compounded as malaka+čiwi “to do the malaka-movement”, in this way pačiwi would be “to do the pa-movement”. Really I think that malakachoa is a very good sign that we are on the right path with our analysis, because apart from malakatl “spindle whorl” another word malakachtli “something that has been spun” (for example thread on a spindle whorl) also exists, which clearly seems to be derived from malakachoa which in turn seems derived from malakatl. Note also the clear relation between ilaka and malaka in ilakatsoa and malakachoa both of which have to do with a turning or twisting motion.

And then finally the noun pachtli would come from


  • *pa-či-ta “something that is on top of something else/ something that has done the pa-movement”
The adjective pachtik would come from

  • *pa-či-ti-ka “to be like something that is on top of something else/to be like something that has done the pa-movement”
If this argumentation holds it suggests that proto-Nahuan had a class of verbs composed of a morpheme that described a specific type of movement (turning, superposition, etc.) or a position composed with verbal stems with relatively general meanings. Interestingly this is exactly what we find in the Uto-Aztecan language Cora, which has a class of 16 different verbal prefixes that describe position and movement. These prefixes can even be combined to create complex types of movement (Casad 1982). So basically it seems that proto-Nahuan may have shared this form of verbal morphology with Cora and maybe also Huichol, Cora's sister language.

So finally, instead of deriving pachoa from pachtli or vice versa, we derive both from a hypothetical root “pa” with a highly abstract meaning, and by positing the use of derivtaional processes that no longer exist in the language.

How is that for oligosynthesis?

Let me know if you find the proposal convincing or not.


Cited works:

  • Canger, Una. 1980. Five studies inspired by Nahuatl verbs in -oa. Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague, Vol. XIX. Copenhagen: The Linguistic Circle of Copenhagen
  • Casad, Eugene. 1982. Cora Locationals and Structured Imagery. Doctoral disssertation. University of California San Diego. 

lørdag den 6. september 2014

Xochicuicatl Cuecuechtli – the first contemporary opera in Nahuatl: A Review


Having just returned from the first performance of Xochicuicatl Cuecuechtli – billed as the first contemporary Opera with a libretto in Nahuatl, composed and directed by Gabriel Pareyón – I had to make this the topic of this blog post which will take the form of a review. [Edited: In fact it turns out that in 2005 the Opera "La Conquista" by Lorenzo Ferrero, premiered in Prague. Its libretto was partly in Nahuatl, written by the Nahuatl specialist Frances Karttunen. Thanks to Dr. Karttunen, for pointing this out to me!]

First a little background: The opera is written by Gabriel Pareyón, a Mexican polymath who works both as a composer, a musicologist, a linguist and a semiotician. He has previously written pieces of contemporary music with long titles in Otomí some of which can be heard on youtube, but this seems to be his first work featuring Nahuatl. In the program Pareyón describes that the work is part of a research project on how to understand indigenous musical traditions of Mexico, and give life to an aesthetic vision that harks back to Mesoamerica before European contact.

The libretto is based on one of the Cantares Mexicanos, which is a collection of songs in Nahuatl, written sometime in the 16th century. The text are considered by most Nahuatl specialists to be among the most intrigueing texts written in colonial Nahuatl, and among the most challenging. The particular songtype is what in Nahuatl is called a Cuecuechcuicatl, which John Bierhorst translates into English as “Ribald Flowersong” and philosopher and Nahuatl scholar Patrick Johansson translates as “Canto florido de travesuras” (flowery song of naughtiness). Based on descriptions of the songtype in ethnohistorical sources which describe it as being sexually inappropriate for a good Christian audience, Johansson reinterprets the flower and nature images of the song as sexual metaphors. This interpretation forms the basis of Pareyón's work which is built around an erotic theme.

The music is written for an ensemble of instruments of types known to have been used by pre-contact Mesoamerican musicians (this kind of music is increasingly beoming known as pre-cuauhtemic music in Mexico, alluding to Cuauhtemoc the last independent ruler of Mexihco-Tenochtitlan). These instruments include large standing drums (huehuetl) and smaller lying slit-drums (teponaztli), as well as other percussion instruments and different types of flutes and conch trumpets. The music is written for and performed by the pre-cuauhtemic ensemble Kuauhkiyahuitzintli/Lluvia de Palos led by percussionist José Navarro.

The plot of the work, created by Pareyón based on the song, evolves around an erotic relation between a Huastec by the name Tohuenyo (performed by Ricardo Diaz Mendoza, known from Mel Gibson's Apocalypto), three ahuianimeh “pleasure girls”(performed by Silvia Moreno, Abril Mondragon and Priscella Uvalle) and a cuicamatini “knower of songs” (performed by César Juarez-Joyner) who at the end of the work turns into the Aztec god of sexual debauchery Xochipilli.

Unfortunately I missed the conference that was given by the composer and several Nahuatl specialists, including Patrick Johansson before the performance, and I arrived to take my seat just before the curtain went up.

It was not the first time that I had heard pre-cuauhtemic music, but I was very surprised at the enormous range of expressivity that Lluvia de Palos were able to create with their limited means. In spite of clearly being in the genre of “contemporary” compositional music, the sound was not easily associated with any specific place or time in the world. At times it was reminiscent of Japanese music, as I know it from Kurosawa movies, or of balinese gong music. But at other times it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. In a good way. I particularly liked the part where the three Ahuianime use the metates (grindstones for grinding corn) as musical instruments, the sound of stone grinding against stone creating a rich texture with the wooden sounds of the slit drums.

The singing was something else. In an interview given to the diariodigital, Pareyón explained that he had worked consciously to try to arrive at a singing style that was not based on European singing. In the same interview Enid Negrete, coordinator and scenographer stated that “The Nahuatl language gave opportunity to, provoked and required a different vocal technique, completely distinct from the European technique which is based on articulation rather than embodiment, and which is also used in order to make sure the Nahuatl is intelligible and retains its intonation.” The vocal technique was definitely very different from any European technique (and also from any non-European technique I have heard). The technique involved singing in a high-pitched highly glottalized (what linguists would call “creaky voice”) register, where the voice frequently breaks into falsetto. It was at times difficult to distinguish the composition from the vocal technique. The singers seemed to repeat a small number of melodic figures most of them based on a rising falling melodic contour, with different accentuations and phrasings, chopping them up into staccatos with strong accent on each syllable, breaking into violent falsettos on the high point of the phrase, or glottalizing the descending phrase into a fading shriek. The goal of creating a completely distinct vocal aesthetic was certainly achieved. The other goal of making a technique suited for Nahuatl I think was less well achieved. I was able to hear quite a bit of the libretto and recognize parts of the poem, which were repeated in the voices of the different singers. But many times I was unable to hear what was being sung at all – perhaps this is a result of the technique being focused on embodiment rather than on articulation, and I certainly also cant always hear what is being sung in a European opera, so that may not be so big of a deal. But also the intonation of the language was completely changed, a lot of the times the speech rhytm was weirdly staccato sounding like no variety of Nahuatl I have ever heard, and frequently stress was placed on syllables where they would never occur in spoken Nahuatl. Overall the delivery of the language came across to me as extremely artificial and unnatural (in a not good way). 

I think I understand the choice of this strange vocal aesthetics – simply because using any singing style that could be identified as “European” would have clearly marked the attempt to attain a truly “autochtonous” aesthetics as half-assed an hypocritical. But on the other hand I have a hard time believing that the style though very “foreign” and unknown was in fact a closer approximation of how pre-cuauhtemic singing sounded like. In me, the choice of vocal technique produced a very strong verfremdungseffekt, that provoked me to think critically about the whole project and the way it depicted the indigenous people as completely exotic (and savagely erotic) others. This made me ask myself the question whether the pursuit of the aesthetic other of European music in an imagined pre-cuauhtemic Mesoamerica does not easily turn into a kind of “occidentalism”.

Another aspect that bugged me a bit regarding the treatment of the language was the fact that the Nahuatl libretto was nowhere represented in writing – neither in the program nor in the running light titles above the stage. Anyone who was not able to understand the sung Nahuatl (I would estimate that would be about 98% of the audience) only had acces to the “supertitles” in Spanish above the stage. The “supertitles” also written by Pareyón, had a very indirect relation to what was actually being sung in Nahuatl. At times the titles approximated Johanssons translation, but at other times it deviated completely from the Nahuatl words, creating dialogue between the characters, or adding sexual innuendo such as “we women do not subsist on corn and beans alone, we also need chili” or “I erect my flowery pole” neither of which was present in the sung words. The supertitle in that way was more of a guide to the plot, and an representation of the composers interpretation of the poem than an actual translation of the sung text. This made the Nahuatl text stand alone isolated from the meaning of the plot, and to me gave the impression that the language was only an instrument to achieve an aesthetic effect, but not meant to be a language of actual communication. Kind of like a meaningless soundscape, that the Spanish supertitles then inscribed meaning onto. So is this cultural translation or is it colonizing and erasing the Nahuatl text and the voice of the Nahuas who wrote it?

While this performance was the official premiere, the opera had in fact already been performed for an audience of Nahua people in Arcelia, Guerrero. This was done, according to the composer, in order to show indigenous people that also non-native speakers can use the Nahuatl language. It does seem that  other than this, no native speakers were directly involved in the production. Sometimes it is difficult to be sure when the usage of cultural signs across cultural borders are demonstrations of friendship and brotherhood and when they are appropriations. Here a few hours after having seen the performance, I still havent settled on one of those two interpretations.

I'll finish by giving some examples of different translations of the first stanza of the poem, as you will see hey are quite different:

Hue nache niehco. Ya nihuehuetzcatihuitz.
Ye nixcuecuech, Aya, xochitl in ye nocuic.
Momamalina zan ic ya totoma, ho Ohuaya, nicalle.
Ye ompa nihuitz xochitl iztac ihcacan,
anca ye mochan in quiquizcalihtic
in amoxtonaticac, Ohuaya, nicalle.

Hey Brother! I'm arriving. I come laughing. I'm a leering ribald! My songs, these flowers, They are whirling and I set them free.
I come from where white flowers stand. And now it seems these pictures stand up shining in your home
this trumpet house. (Bierhorst 1985:369)
Mi gran jefe, llego: yo vengo a reír. / My great chief, I arrive, I come to laugh
Soy cara traviesa, flor es mi canción./  
I am a naughty face, flower is my song
Se va tramando y luego se despliega. ¡Ah, soy el casero! / 
It goes weaving and then unfolds. Ah! I am the one who lives here.
Llego a donde la flor blanca está
erguida: / I arrive to where the white flower stands erect:
ésa es tu casa y entre las trompetas / 
This is your house and among the trumpets
tus libros relucen como el Sol. ¡Ah, soy el casero!
/ books shine like the sun. Ah! I am the one who lives here
Á.G. Garibay K. (1955)/ (my translation to English)
Oh gran jefe, llegué, vine a reír./     O great chief, I arrived. I came to laugh.
Soy cara traviesa, aya, esta flor es mi canto. / I am a naughty face, aya, this flower is my song
Se va tramando y luego se despliega. ¡Soy el dueño de la casa! / It goes weaving and then unfolds. I am the owner of the house!
Llegué a donde la flor blanca está erguida: / I arrived at where the white flower stands erect.
ésa es tu casa entre las trompetas / That is your house among the trumpets,
donde se calienta el musgo, ¡soy el dueño de la casa! / Where the moss is warm. I am the owner of the house.
 
 P. Johansson (2002)/ My translation into English